The first night in Cambodia we slept in Pailin, a town right after the border in a beautiful wooden bungalow for 15 USD. Funnily we most of the times pay in USD as Cambodians don’t have any trust in their own currency, the Riel. Even ATMs only spit out Dollars, there is just one way to get local money: exchange Euros or Dollars at a money changer or bank. We now have three different currencies in our wallet: Dollars, Baht and Riel as they also accept the Thai money.
On Saturday we arrived in Battambang, the second largest town in Cambodia with a strong Thai and French influence. So far, the country surprised us with a perfect tarmac road, wide shoulders, little traffic and picturesque scenery (the latter did not come as a surprise, we expected this) and cycling went great. The main disturbance was the drying of cassava roots along the road and mainly on the shoulders.
We found a nice and cheap hotel and decided to become super tourists the next day by going with a tuk tuk guide on a sightseeing tour. A great decision as our driver Tin Tin is a very knowledgable guy and we learned a lot about the country’s history, culture and people.
In 1975 Tin Tin just turned ten when the comrades or soldiers, completely dressed in black uniforms, with one pant leg rolled up halfway, both sleeves rolled up till the elbow and a plaid scarf around their necks in different colors depending on the regiment they belonged to, invaded Phnom Penh, confiscated houses, money, jewellery, killed people who refused to hand over their belongings and broke up families to bring them to the countryside. Within a week the capital was deserted. From now on family, wealth and status were irrelevant. Money was abolished and everyday life was dictated by Angkar, the secretive revolutionary organization behind the Khmer Rouge with its leader Pol Pot. Educated people such as teachers, doctors, monks or those who spoke a foreign language were killed and eye glasses destroyed. Forced labour was deployed in the fields and hundreds of thousands of people died due to malnutrition, starvation or diseases. And so did Tin Tin’s parents and his sister, our tuk tuk driver was the only survivor of his close family. It is estimated that during the four-year regime at least 1.5 million Cambodians died. Tin Tin talked about the dark side of his country with tears in his eyes and only when Johan asked about it. Over the coming weeks we’ll visit more of these horrifying sites.
Tin Tin took us on an early morning ride (we left the hotel at 8am) on his tuk tuk – which is actually a motorbike with an attached trailer – through town where we visited the most important sites.
Battambang is the second largest town in Cambodia with a population of less than 200,000 people. It is very laid back and as it still has the bamboo train running, packed with tourists. It has been established on an old railway track that was closed many years ago. To get there Tin Tin drove us through small villages and forests and we soaked up the countryside views that seemed like a series if moving postcards. After getting dropped at the train station and paying for the ride we were brought to ‘our’ train which is nothing more than a large bamboo platform, mounted on axles powered by a small go-kart engine. The driver pulled the engine cord and in a few moments we were moving at a fierce speed. With no roof, doors or seat belts, and only a frail-looking railing to clutch, it was almost as thrilling as a roller-coaster ride! We road for about 20 minutes through more villages, jungle and farmland before we stopped again at another train station where children sold handmade grasshoppers, refreshments and other tourist trappings. To go back the train was easily dismantled by taking off the bamboo platform including the engine, heaving off the axles, turning the whole thing and re-assembling it. Rumor has it that the bamboo train will be eventually replaced by modern cargo trains.
We met Tin Tin again who then drove us through some other villages and some more picturesque jungle to an 11th century temple where he talked a bit about Buddhism in Cambodia, showed us the fish market, a rice wine production before we eventually returned home. In the afternoon we strolled a bit through town, bought French pastries and breads and ended our evening with a nice dinner at a French restaurant. Bonne Nuit!